Let’s face it; modern travel is grueling for those who haven’t the funds to fly first or business class. All flights are full, as are all overhead compartments. Passengers share less space than prisoners in a local lockup. More than once, my seatmates have oozed across the armrest to take up a substantial portion of the minuscule 17 inches of seat room I paid for.
Once, a weight lifter with a massive upper torso literally could not fit into his assigned seat, at least above the waist. His shoulders, likely 21-22 inches across, developed an intimate relationship with my chest area, making regular contact without invitation as he maneuvered his frame searching for comfort. I had none. More recently, the slender woman sitting next to me decided that she could only be comfortable in the fetal position, a contortionist’s nightmare in modern airline seats. The result was a pair of bony knees in my ribs. I politely suggested she shift them. Grumble, grumble.
Travel means schlepping, a Yiddish word that perfectly describes the act of hauling one’s luggage across space or up and down inconvenient elevations. O’Hare Airport in Chicago is a case in point. On every occasion I have landed in Chicago, the connecting flight was three quarters to one mile away, up and down escalators, past myriad shops, dining tables, massage chairs, and bathrooms. Granted, many hallways have the walk ramps that can ease the tedium of wheeling and walking, but often such devices are out of order, and for the equivalent of 9 – 12 city blocks, there is no way to get to the next gate except to heft and schlep purse, backpack, and carry-on as one mimics llamas in the Andes Mountains.
In the old days, by which I mean less than twenty years ago, luggage could be checked for free, thereby freeing the traveler the burden. No more. As costs have gone up, my income has fallen, and so I avoid checking my bag and have instead become a master packer and travel shaman. Here are some of the tips that have saved me space, irritation, illness, and injury.
1. THE BAG – I have variously used hiking backpacks, city backpacks, carpet bags, goofa (a woven plastic contrivance from Morocco that will only ever tear at the seams), and roll-ons. After 100,000 miles of travel, I took a one woman poll and opted for a roll-on plus a large shoulder bag. The roll-on can either be put in the overhead or consigned to the bowels of the plane with a free gate checked baggage tag. The shoulder bag holds traveling essentials. These two pieces are sufficient for everything I need for a month or two.
2. ROLL-ON (Long-term Needs) – Buy or borrow an all-wheel-roll carry-on no larger than 22″ x 14″ x 9″. Get one that has a gussett, an extra fold of depth that can be zipped open or closed and, in the process, add an inch or two of valuable space. Expensive types will have a smoother rolling mechanism and handle extension, but most will be sturdy enough to withstand several dozen bounces off the baggage carousel, at least that many hard landings on the conveyor belt, and up to six flattening episodes beneath a Ringling Bros. elephant.
3. SHOULDER-BAG (Immediate Needs) – Be picky. Haunt Ross, TJ Maxx, Value Village, or your favorite discount establishment until you find the right bag. Lift the bag to check weight. Slip it over your shoulder to ensure fit. Open and close all the zippers because they need to move smoothly. Think ‘ budget bag’ because this piece will get a punishing workout on every trip, and it should meet specific needs. For me, these include:
- Inside zipper compartment for meds, supplements, pens, and miscellaneous
- Outside zipper for wipes, magazines, books, and itinerary, or a Kindle if you have one
- A capacious interior to hold snacks, the actual purse, a small laptop, an extra set of underwear (yes, mom, I listened), and even a spare pair of shoes.
The shoulder bag can slide under the seat, even when stuffed with all the things listed.
If you aren’t used to traveling but you are used to walking around a track at home, calmly pacing the quarter miles on barkamulch and covering several miles without a qualm, please disabuse yourself that wandering around the Parthenon in Athens, or finding your way to the Galata Tower in Istanbul will be anything like your fitness walks at home.
Few walking routes that you may stroll in foreign lands are smoothly surfaced. Uneven pavements, changing surfaces, and often dangerous conditions are the norm. In Casablanca, the sidewalks may be fairly even, but getting from one corner to another requires agility, speed, and precognition. People addicted to texting while walking are being found in worrying numbers crumpled on the pavement, pressing SOS into their phone pad with their last breath.
4. Comfort is essential, so plan your shoes accordingly. If you regularly walk 6 kilometers (3.5 miles) in flip flops, pack them up! Otherwise, buy shoes specifically for walking and break them in before you go. This might seem obvious, but sometimes folks buy a new pair of shoes from a familiar brand, thinking that they already know the fit will be good. Unfortunately, new shoes aren’t fit to the shape of the foot yet, and you don’t want the “period of adjustment” to happen while you are climbing up and down the Acropolis.
Athletic shoes, especially cross trainers, with their arch support and balanced sole are great choices. For warmer climes, sandals like Tevas, with their anchoring straps can also work. However, a shoe or sandal that fits one climate may not work in another. In Morocco, I walked 2000 kilometers in one pair of Tevas. The weather in North Africa is dry so foot sweat wasn’t a problem. The same sandals, in India, proved unwearable and I had to switch to leather. Humidity and heat actually caused near blistering on the soles of my feet.
5. If you plan on wearing athletic shoes, bring only three pairs of cotton blend half socks. Full length socks take up twice the room, room needed for other items. Three pairs allows for one wet, one dirty, and one to wear. You may not need all three if the weather is warm enough to dry them overnight, but 2.5 cubic inches for the third is a small space sacrifice.
6. Persons of a certain size, those whose feet tend to swell to the size of Manhattan while flying, will gain relief by wearing athletic shoes on the plane. Unless you have the circulatory system of an ant, heels such as those shown here should be avoided. I would rather people look at me and think “world traveler” rather than “narcissistic idiot.” Warning: Do not take your shoes them off in-flight if you are one who swells. Loosen the laces or straps if need be but leave the shoes on. Your feet will thank you when they aren’t so swollen that walking is difficult.